Downton, Wiltshire
—  Church of St. Laurence  —

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Church of St. Laurence

Church History

The estate of Downton was held by the Bishop of Winchester from at least the late 8th century and so it is likely that there was an early church here. Later this probably had the status of a minster church and locally would have served the Saxon communities of Charlton, Wick, Witherington, Walton, Standlynch and Barford as well as villages farther afield. As this would have been a fair sized church it is possible that it continued to be used until the later 12th century, when a new church seems to have been built. In the nave the three western bays of the arcade date from this time, when the nave appears to have been short but wide.

In the early 13th century, when the borough was founded, the church was greatly enlarged by the addition of two eastern bays to the nave, a central tower and transepts, and a larger chancel. This was high quality work and would have both attracted new burgage holders and accommodated them, once they had built houses in the Borough. In 1295 William Burnell endowed a chantry, the chapel being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the early 14th century the chancel and transepts were re-modelled and raised to their present height while the aisles may also have been rebuilt during this century. In the 15th century the western doorway was inserted in the nave and some windows were re-modelled. Much work was carried out in the early 17th century, including the reconstruction of the upper part of the tower and tracery in the windows was replaced by mullions. In 1648 the porch was either added or rebuilt. In 1791 the tower was raised 30 feet higher than its present height so that Lord Radnor could see it from his estate. Battlements and pinnacles were also added.

The Victorian restoration occurred in 1859 and the tower, pictured here with the south transept, was then restored to its former height. Much work was carried out on the chancel which, until this time, had been separated from the nave by a wall, having been used by the Bishops of Winchester as a chapel when visiting Downton. The west gallery of 1734 and the vestry were removed at this time. Outside there is a medieval cross on a raised base to the south east of the porch. The bells were increased from six to eight after the Second World War and include one from the mid 14th century. The parish registers from 1601 (marriages) and 1602 (baptisms and burials), other than those in current use, are held in the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office in Trowbridge.


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DOWNTON PARISH CHURCH: A Short Guide for Visitors

NOTE: These notes were compiled by A.R. Woodford. I created this document in 2000 to be used at the church.

Church of St. Laurence


As one enters the large, ancient church of Downton, one is standing on ground hallowed by the worship of Almighty God for over thirteen hundred years.

Of the first church, built in honor of St Laurence, Deacon and Martyr, nothing remains. This was a Saxon building, probably of wood and wattle, which was consecrated by Birinus in 638 AD.

The oldest part of the present building, consisting of the three western bays on the north side, dates back to 1150. The church was restored in 1648 and the south aisle was entirely rebuilt, the corresponding bays on this side are therefore copies of the originals with the exception of a half capital at the west end. During this restoration the domestic style windows were inserted in the south aisle.

It is interesting to trace the growth of the church from the first small Late Norman building to the present noble cruciform edifice.

Joining the Norman bays are two lofty arches of the Transitional period, on the east side of which can be seen corbels which might have carried a Rood Beam, thus marking the entrance to the choir of the church in the second stage of its growth.

The last stages of development were the additions of the Early English transepts (13th Century) and decorated chancel, known as the Weeping Chancel (14th Century).

The visitor may wonder why so large a church was built in a place the size of Downton. Prior to the Reform Bill of 1832, Downton was a flourishing place, which sent two Members to Parliament annually, and held a weekly market until a much later date. Until the middle of the 19th Century there were no churches at Reedlynch, Morgans Vale or Charlton, and so it was necessary to erect a building capable of accommodating congregations composed of people from a wide area.

Until 1860, when the church went through another period of restoration, the chancel was shut off from the remainder of the church and access could be gained through a door in the centre of the enclosed chancel arch, behind the then existing Altar. This was once a separate chapel, and was originally used by the Bishops of Winchester, who were at one time lords of the Manor, when they stayed at their house 'Old Court' nearby.

The first rector of Downton was William de Hamelton, 1281, when the right of patronage belonged to the Bishop of Winchester. In 1385 the Warden of Scholars of Winchester College became the patrons of the living, and Nicholas de Alresford, who was appointed to the living in 1383, became the first Vicar of Downton two years later.

The Church Registers date back to 1599, when William Wilkes was Vicar and Richard Foldford and Ambrose Snelgar, Church Wardens.

Church of St. Laurence


The Nave

  • South Door — The arch is 14th Century and the heavy oak door, which has been restored, is of the same period.
  • Font — The bowl, which has been repaired, is of Purbeck marble and is Early English, not Norman, as might be suggested by the decoration.
  • Mural — On the west wall there are faint traces of a mural, the origin of which is unknown. It does suggest, however, an animal and a halo, and might have been a representation of the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt.
  • Oak Chest — The chest is 17th Century.
  • Jacobean Table — Made from the sounding board of the old pulpit, long since lost.
  • MediŠval Glass — No ancient glass remains in the church apart from that placed in the window in the north aisle in 1932. This represents St Christopher and St Barbara.
  • Pillars — The pillars of the arches beneath the Tower were buttressed to take the extra weight of the tower, which was raised thirty feet in 1791. This proved to be unsatisfactory, and the tower was lowered to its original height in 1860.
  • Organ — A two-manual instrument originally built by Messrs Sweetland of Bath in 1870.

The South Transept

  • Hagioscope (14th Century) — Commonly known as a Priest's Squint, this is used by Celebrants at the side altar in order to see the high altar and so enable the services to be synchronized. Hooks for a shutter can be seen inside the opening.
  • Duncomve Memorial — This is a good example of an 18th Century marble monument. Sir Charles Duncomve, who lived at Barford House, later destroyed by fire, was a goldsmith banker of the City of London. He died on the 9th April, 1711 during his term of office as Lord Mayor of London and his remains lie in a vault beneath the Lady Chapel.
  • Fire Engine — The old parish fire engine, dated 1768, now in the Salisbury Museum, was kept in this transept and was admitted by a door in the south end. This door is now walled up.

The Chancel

  • Low Side Window — Commonly called a Leper Window, these windows were possibly used by the priest to Communicate lepers outside o,r what is more probably, used by the Sacristan to ring the Sanctus Bell through. The original hooks for shutters on the inside and outside remain.
  • Windows — The tracery of the central windows on each side, together with the corbels and shafts, are original 14thCentury. Although the whole of the tracery in the east window is modern, the arch is original.
  • Sedilia — This is originally 14th Century, with the exception of the projecting part of the canopy, which has been restored. It is used by the clergy officiating at Mass for resting during the singing of the Gloria and Creed.
  • Aumbry — An aumbry remains in the wall beyond the sedilia.
  • Reredos — This is Modern.It was given in memory of Canon Richard Payne, Vicar of Downton, 1841-1883, by his family. The subjects of the five central panels are: The supper at Emaus, Adoring Angels, St Michael and St Gabriel. The two lower panels represent St Peter and St Laurence.
  • Door — The remains of a door can be seen on the outside of the north wall of the Sanctuary. It is thought to have once led to a Sacristy.
  • Monuments — The 18th Century wall monuments, two of which are by Scheermakers, were erected in memory of Lord Faversham, Baron of Downton, who died 18th June, 1763; two of his wives, Frances Lady Faversham died 21st Nobember, 1757, and Margaret Lady Faversham died 9th October, 1755; and his son George Duncomve died 7th March, 1741, aged 21 years.
  • The Bells — The Tower contains eight bells, the oldest of which is dated 1605. The clock bell on the roof of the Tower was cast locally at Redlunch, by John Shelly in 1823. The tower also houses an ancient apparatus for chimes, which was originally connected with the clock.

The Church Plate

  • A Chalice — This is inscribed: "Richard Toogood, Edmond Whittick 1620 C. Wardens."
  • A Flagon — This is hallmarked 1624.
  • A Paten — This is hallmarked 1628.
  • Two Three-footed Slavers — These are inscribed: "The Gift of Mrs Emma Noyes, to the altar of Downton Church 1778."
  • Two Alms Dishes — These were given by Mr Reeves, Church Warden, about 1860.
Church of St. Laurence

Outside the Church

  • Scratch Dial — On the south wall can be seen a scratch dial, or mass clock, with a central hole in which was inserted the gnomon or metal pin.
  • Priests' Doorway — A 14th Century doorway in the south wall, now blocked up internally, may have been used as the priests' entrance to the parochial part of the church when the chancel was shut off. Above the door is a niche, which most likely contained a statue of St Laurence. The statue and cross from the shaft nearby, together with the church's stained glass, were probably destroyed during the Reformation.
  • Churchyard Cross — The shaft of the 13th Century churchyard cross stands on the south side of the church. Traces of carved heads can be seen at the base.
  • The Tower — Mainly 14th Century. The battlements and pinnacles were made for the tower when it was raised in 1791, and retained when it was lowered again in 1860.
  • The Lych Gate — Erected in 1892 in memory of Canon Payne who was Vicar of Downton for forty-two years.

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